Geopolitics

The ‘Why’ of Rethinking Indian Nuclear Deterrence!
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 25 Jul , 2014

Indian nuclear decision making was always in the global political context. These were almost exclusively political decisions with the armed forces not in the loop. The 1974 Pokhran I tests were in response to the emergent Sino-US quasi alliance of 1972 (Shanghai declaration by Nixon and Chou En Lai) that threatened the withdrawal of the implicit American nuclear ‘umbrella’. The 1998 tests were in the context of CTBT that was to be universally applicable which would have left India permanently as a Tier II power. The other context was emerging multi-polar world.

A rising China which has adopted revanchist policies in its neighbourhood was a also a major factor in that decision, as has become clear now. In both the cases the emphasis was exclusively on preserving the ‘political independence of decision making’ and had very little if any, security linkages. Neither in 1974 nor in 1998 was there any immediate security threat to the country, nuclear or otherwise.

Many Indians nostalgically point out at the proactive Israeli strategy against terror attacks but fail to appreciate that India does not enjoy that kind of superiority over Pak.

Given this context it is futile to rue the fact that the military was never a part of the decision making since the decisions were guided by political and long term considerations. Both the actions had the Sino-US combine as their intended targets.

Close to six years after India’s Pokhran I test of 1974, India’s nuclear strategy remained a political strategy with global aims. This ought to have changed when under the Reagan administration (the US and its then ally China) brought about/facilitated Pakistani nuclear capability to ‘balance’ the then Soviet ally, India. The US and China have thus done permanent damage to the sub-continent by creating a regional nuclear flashpoint. Unlike India, Pakistan is not a ‘natural state’ with constant questions by its own citizens about its existence. It is at the same time a revisionist state that wants a part of India (J&K) and wants to forever redress the adverse balance of power in the sub-continent.

Thus in the 1980s, India’s nuclear strategy acquired a clear security linkage, yet the political and military elite continued with the earlier thinking and promoted concepts like ‘nuclear ambiguity’ and ‘recessed deterrence’ to name a few. In the context of nuclear weapons, the first is positively dangerous as ‘ambiguity’ can lead to miscalculation and detracts from the concept of ‘deterrence’ that is central to the nuclear zero sum game with armed peace as a saddle point. The less said about ‘recessed or hidden deterrence’ the better.

This situation came about due to the reluctance/disinterest of the armed forces’ top leadership in seriously considering ‘deterrence’ as central concept as they continued with their ‘business as usual’ approach, preparing and arming to fight the last war. Gen Sundarji was possibly the only exception who had the intellectual capacity to understand the changed military context. His brilliant concept of turning the C3 and I (Command, Control, Communication and Intelligence) into a force multiplier is evidence of this. But Sundarji did not have a lasting influence and on his retirement the armed forces returned to status quo ante.

India’s long held doctrine of offensive defense against Pakistan stands neutralised. Even against China, India’s defensive defence strategy is being threatened by the Chinese logistical build up in Tibet…

In 1998 when India conducted a series of tests, including that of a thermonuclear weapon, it declared a unilateral ‘no first use’ policy. This was a political requirement to calm the fears of the world community and also assure Pakistan a degree of security as long as it stayed non-nuclear. But given its policy of striving for a strategic balance with India, Pakistan also went ahead and conducted its own tests. Since 1998 both the countries have openly declared their possession of nuclear weapons. Pakistan did not give a ‘no first use pledge’ and in fact announced that given conventional arms superiority of India it would use nuclear weapons against even a conventional threat to its territory. China on the other hand continued with its ‘no first nuclear use’ policy vis a vis India, but instead built up its conventional strength on the Sino-Indian border.

Given the close strategic co-ordination between China and Pakistan vis a vis India, it seems that the combine is playing a Mutt and Jeff or Good Cop Bad Cop game with India. With China acting as a good cop and non threatening while Pakistan acts aggressive. In short, China is getting Pak to do its dirty work. Indian reaction to this strategy by trying to ‘reason it’ with bad cop, i.e. Pakistan, has failed as seen by the Pakistani misadventure in Kargil in May 1999. That this happened despite PM Vajpayee’s effort at peace through his Lahore visit is instructive.

Pakistani argument that its option of first use of nuclear weapons is dictated by its weakness in conventional strength is patently false. While it is true that India does have an edge in conventional military forces, it is far from attaining any kind of ‘superiority’ over Pakistan. Many Indians nostalgically point out at the proactive Israeli strategy against terror attacks but fail to appreciate that India does not enjoy that kind of superiority over Pak. It is an axiom that in modern era, defence is inherently superior to offense and this goes in favour of Pakistan. Finally, the canal and river system in Punjab make it a nightmare for any major offensive.

Given these factors India’s long held doctrine (?) of offensive defense against Pakistan stands neutralised. Even against China, India’s defensive defence strategy is being threatened by the Chinese logistical build up in Tibet giving it strategic mobility as well. The terrain already gave it advantage of tactical mobility being on the right side of Himalayan barrier.

Once our security is linked to the nuclear weapons, the linkage though escalation ladder with conventional and sub conventional conflicts is inevitable.

In addition to the above stated problems, India tends to treat the conventional, sub-conventional and nuclear threats in isolation. What this divergence between the conventional and nuclear has done is that there is a lack of synergy in defence planning between the various facets of defence forces and linkages of various threats. Once our security is linked to the nuclear weapons, the linkage though escalation ladder with conventional and sub conventional conflicts is inevitable. It is lack of this linkage and clear thinking on our part that has hamstrung our security policies. In addition this also brings in the possibility that we may stumble on the slippery slope of nuclear war by escalation.

India’s bumbling defence policies and ineffective strategies that seem to have been trumped more often than not are in stark contrast to the very effective economic policies that are envy of the world. The difference is that most economic policies are adopted after a vigorous open debate. There are also several think tanks that deal with economic issues and these are regularly consulted by the govt.

On security front however one has hardly seen any informed debate and both the military and civil bureaucracy have shunned any dialogue. Secrecy about plans and some equipment is necessary but most of the broad strategies are based on information available in open sources. Open debates and clear articulation of policies is a necessity in nuclear age as these enhance deterrence and reduce the chance war by miscalculation. One routinely hears that defence ministry stating that they have a strategy that is ‘not in public interest to disclose’. Many including this author suspect that the individuals involved use the cloak of secrecy to hide their incompetence. Our otherwise vociferous MPs also seem silent on this very vital issue.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored a book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996.

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5 thoughts on “The ‘Why’ of Rethinking Indian Nuclear Deterrence!

  1. There is a clear lesson for India to be learned from the sixty years of détente between US and Russia. The nuclear escalation ladder is a concept with very little secrecy. Each side is clear about the consequences. It’s objectives are clear to prevent either side from stepping on the nuclear ladder given the threat of retaliation in kind from the other side. Once this stage is reached the nuclear threat is neutralized leaving an adversary like Pakistan less inclined to engage in their thousand cut war under the nuclear umbrella. India has no choice but to achieve and demonstrate through testing a triad fool proof capacity to retaliate with more deadly and lighting force then anything Pakistan or China can throw. This is a fundamental requirement to prevent a nuclear devastation launched by the enemy state or rogue elements within.

  2. indian hinduus by nature are used to spend life on fraud and baseless concepts.this essay in best example of hindu nature. for Chinese and Europeans and world> keep this 2 million barbaric indian army away 1year and see how many new countries come out from this so called “natural “country india.what is difference between this so called nature country india and Pakistan>except hindi speaking Indians all others wants freedom by nature and in Pakistan indian spy agency raw spend billions dollars to buy some black sheeps to break Pakistan.there are 300 medical collages for Pakistani people in Pakistan producing over half million doctors in year> Pakistan is heaven and actuall natural country.

    • Dear Yazkhan,

      you are true representative of your country. Good, keep it up.

      As an Indian I sincerely pray to Allah that each and every citizen of your country be blessed with the same level of wisdom and intelligence as yours. This will multiply the current level of heavenly feeling in your country. Inshallah !

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